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Fired Up for Irish Dance

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Post-Riverdance, this fleet-footed dancing goes mainstream

By Darrah Carr

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Riverdance generated a craze for Irish dance—if you mention the show to your younger students, you might get a blank stare. But the rapid-fire, unison dancing of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and kindred shows appears to have taken root in the United States—and not just among those of Irish ancestry. Its teachers report strong continued interest from students of varied ethnicities. What’s more, they say that training in Irish dance can be helpful to students in ballet and other genres.

Danica Cassabon, Kayleigh Peters, and Kaylea Bixler of Hill Irish Dance School perform at a 2007 festival. (Photo courtesy Jean Hill, Hill Irish Dance School )

Danica Cassabon, Kayleigh Peters, and Kaylea Bixler of Hill Irish Dance School perform at a 2007 festival. (Photo courtesy Jean Hill, Hill Irish Dance School )

Long before Riverdance, the fundamentals of Irish dance were taught locally in Irish villages by traveling dance masters—all men—who emerged during the second half of the 18th century. Largely itinerant, they stayed in a community for six weeks at a time and taught dance, music, and deportment in exchange for room and board. During the Gaelic Revival of the 1890s, Irish dance became an important national symbol as revivalists fostered a strong sense of Irish cultural identity in order to support the push for Irish independence from Great Britain. The teaching of Irish dance became formalized with the introduction of Irish dance competitions in 1901 and the founding of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission) in 1929.

Throughout the 20th century, Irish dance spread across the United States, Canada, and Australia due to large waves of Irish emigration. The Irish Dancing Commission oversaw the regulation of competitions and the certification of teachers and adjudicators through rigorous examinations. (Certified teachers are said to have a TCRG, the Gaelic acronym for “Commission-Certified Irish Dance Teacher.” Certified adjudicators hold the ADCRG, for “Commission-Certified Irish Dance Adjudicator.” A person holding such certification is commonly referred to as “a TCRG” or “an ADCRG.”) Irish dancing schools were established in parish halls, community centers, and school auditoriums. Rather than owning their own studios, teachers, like their itinerant forebears, often held classes in several locations within a given area.

Given the heavy focus on competition, Irish dance evolved into a highly technical form, née sport, with dancers trained in two distinct styles: soft shoe and hard shoe. (A certified teacher is qualified to teach both styles.) Soft shoe dances are akin to ballet and feature graceful jumps, turns, and intricate footwork. Hard shoe dances are similar to tap and focus on the precise execution of percussive rhythms. In both styles, dancers hold their arms down by their sides and keep their torso still so that the speed and clarity of their footwork are emphasized. Both styles are performed entirely on the balls of the feet without incorporating any plié.

Dancers typically begin training at 5 years of age and learn the soft shoe style first. During the second or third year of study, hard shoes are introduced. Many dancers enter competition as early as their first year of study. Ornate dresses with designs inspired by Celtic knotwork and curly-haired wigs are standard features of competition for girls. Boys wear a more simple ensemble of trousers, shirts, vests, and cummerbunds. 

The development of Irish dance as an extremely virtuosic form literally set the stage for the smash hit Riverdance (1994), as well as Lord of the Dance (1996) and the many spin-offs that followed. To date, Riverdance has played more than 10,000 times in 300 venues in 32 countries across 4 continents, not to mention the show’s worldwide television audience of nearly 2 billion people.

Riverdance’s incredible popularity led to a huge increase in enrollment. “It spread like wildfire in terms of enrollment in the school and people seeking Irish dance classes,” says Eireann McCormack, a TCRG and former Riverdance member who teaches at the Griffith Academy in Wethersfield, Connecticut. “Within a year of Riverdance, classes had grown immensely and were filled with people who were not even of Irish heritage, which I think is fantastic. Irish dance is aerobic, fun, and beautiful. People can get many different things from it. Our adult classes grew quite a bit too. It wasn’t just ‘I want my kid to do that’—it was ‘I want to do that, too!’ ”

Enrollment is no longer at the all-time high that it was when Riverdance first started touring. Nevertheless, many Irish dance teachers still travel to different class locations under the umbrella of one Irish dancing school. And the dance form itself is now traveling, too. Irish dance is crossing over from Irish dancing schools to mainstream dance studios where it is frequently offered alongside ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop. Kieran Jordan, TCRG and a Boston-based Irish dance performer, teacher, and choreographer, recalls, “Around ’95 or ’96, when Riverdance first hit America, the calls really started coming in. I wasn’t teaching at all at the time. I was focusing on performance. But I had offers to start kids’ programs in every variety of dance studio.”

“In Irish dance, we concentrate on listening to the timing of the music so much that it really helps with tap dance training. . . . Also, because we spend so much time on our toes in Irish dance, it really benefits the girls who are going into ballet class.” —teacher Christine Morrison

For several years, Jordan taught Irish at three dance studios in the Boston suburbs. “I would start by giving a master class. Then I’d [teach] during the summer for a week and then for a longer summer camp. Then there was enough interest that people wanted yearly classes. So I’d teach four classes in a row at one place and then four classes in another place. I’d also choreograph an Irish dance piece for their end-of-year recitals.”

In 2004 Jordan left Boston to pursue a master’s degree in contemporary dance performance at the University of Limerick, Ireland. She turned over her classes at Dance New England School of Dance (DNE) in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, to her colleague Christine Morrison.

When Morrison started teaching at DNE, the studio offered four Irish dance classes per week, with a total enrollment of 30 to 40 students. Six years later, the studio offers 24 Irish dance classes per week that draw close to 200 students. “It is great to see it grow, although it is almost spiraling out of control,” Morrison says with a laugh. “Being in the Boston area, a lot of my students have Irish backgrounds. But we also have Asian and Middle Eastern students. We have students from pretty much every ethnicity. When they come into the studio, they hear the fast music and they know that they are going to have fun.”

Morrison estimates that 30 percent of her Irish dance students are also enrolled in other classes at the studio. And she sees direct benefits of applying Irish dance training to other forms. “In Irish dance, we concentrate on listening to the timing of the music so much that it really helps with tap dance training. When my Irish dance students go into a tap class, they are really on the ball. Also, because we spend so much time on our toes in Irish dance, it really benefits the girls who are going into ballet class.”

Mary Beth Griffith, TCRG, an instructor at Griffith Academy, can comment on the benefits of Irish dance training for other forms of dance. When her mother, the late Mary Ann Griffith, founded the school 55 years ago, it was one of the few certified Irish dancing schools (and still is) that offered ballet, tap, and jazz classes in addition to fundamental Irish dance training. “The structure and discipline of Irish dance are very similar to ballet. And studying Irish dance is such a help with a dancer’s posture,” she says. “Also, it can be hard to get a group of young boys interested in ballet because the music is so much slower, whereas if you start them with Irish dance, the music is so lively, and, at the same time, they are learning about posture, engaging their abdominals, and turnout.”

Cross-training in multiple forms can help prevent injuries. Erin Hayes, who has worked as both a physical therapist and a professional Irish dancer, notes that “there are many benefits to not doing the same type of dance every day. If you use different muscle groups each day, you are less susceptible to overuse injuries.”

In 2008, before going on tour with The Magic of Ireland, Hayes taught Irish dance classes at Ballet Arts: The Performing Arts School of Southern Westchester in Pelham, New York. Having grown up taking Irish dance classes on a slippery gym floor, Hayes sees great benefit in the dance studio environment. “The floor is key,” she says. “What kids are dancing on makes a huge difference in terms of injury prevention. It is especially important for Irish dance classes to be on a sprung floor—we don’t use plié, so there is no way for the body to absorb impact. Having a Marley dance floor also makes it less slippery and keeps kids from falling.”

 Although there are many benefits to offering Irish dance classes in a mainstream dance studio, there are also complications given the Irish Dancing Commission’s strict regulation of competition and teacher certification. In order to enter an Irish dance competition, a student must belong to a registered Irish dancing school or be trained by a certified teacher who has passed the TCRG exam. The Irish Dancing Commission enforces these policies in order to protect the livelihoods of registered Irish dance teachers and to ensure that the Irish dance tradition is maintained and transmitted to an appropriate standard. Dance studio owners can refer to the Irish Dance Teacher’s Association of North America (IDTANA) in order to find a certified instructor in their area. IDTANA has more than 650 registered members, with more than 550 in the United States, 100 in Canada, and even one member in Mexico.

On the other hand, competition may not be a priority for every dance studio. As McCormack says, “You don’t have to be based in competition in order to pursue Irish dance. I can see that the Irish Dancing Commission wants to protect each Irish dancing teacher and their livelihood, but at the same time, there is no harm in offering a knowledge-based Irish dance class—as long as the studio owner is clear that it is given in a workshop setting and not in a setting where the students can participate in competition.”

In addition, many students thrive in a non-competitive atmosphere. “When teaching Irish dance in dance studio settings, you tend to get transfers from large Irish dancing schools—parents who don’t want their kids in a competitive environment, or who don’t want to spend money on expensive Irish dancing costumes and wigs,” Hayes explains. “In a competitive Irish dancing school, kids who don’t like competition can get lost. In a dance studio, however, because it is not certified, then they can’t compete, so it is just for fun and for the recital.”

When competition is not an option, the recital performance can become a motivating goal. “Irish dance does stand out,” Jordan says. “It is invigorating music; it is rhythmic, so the audience can all clap along. It is likable and straightforward. The large-group choreography seen in videos of Riverdance or Lord of the Dance can be inspirational when creating student routines.”

As to the question of certification, McCormack says, “People will argue both sides. I don’t think you would find unity within a sampling of Irish dance teachers. Irish dance is definitely more mainstream than it was before Riverdance. The mainstreaming has opened Irish dance to other forms of dance and it has opened other forms of dance to Irish dance.” 

Safety Tips

Erin Hayes, the author of Feis 101: A Handbook for Beginner Irish Dancers, is touring with two Irish dance productions, The Echoes of Ireland and The Magic of Ireland. She offers this advice for studio owners who are thinking about offering Irish dance classes.

Require dancers to wear proper footwear. Irish dancers are notorious for training barefoot or in socks, but doing so creates a great risk of foot and ankle injuries. Proper Irish footwear minimizes this risk—even if it means a few more blisters.

Warm up before class or rehearsal. Irish dancers especially need to warm up their feet and stretch their Achilles tendons before dancing.

Teach on sprung floors. Irish dancing involves moderate to severe impact on load-bearing joints. Sprung floors can prevent stress injuries to young dancers’ growing bodies.

Schedule days off between classes. Offering classes on consecutive days can lead to overuse injuries and deny tired dancers the chance to recuperate.

Provide cross-training opportunities. Irish dance training focuses on a select few muscles, bones, and joints, leading to greater risk of injury. Cross-training through Pilates, yoga, and other techniques helps to develop well-rounded and stronger dancers.

Stop dancing when it hurts. Encourage dancers to sit out and rest when they’re injured. Dancing through pain is never healthy and can lead to further damage.

Resources

Websites
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission): www.clrg.ie
Irish
Dance Teacher’s Association of North America: idtana.org

Instructional Videos/DVDs
Jean Butler’s Irish Dance Masterclass
Celtic Feet Original & Best by Colin Dunne
Irish Dancing Step by Step, Volumes I to III, by Olive Hurley
The Complete Ceili Dance Collection (four-DVD set) by Olive Hurley
Musical Feet! by Kieran Jordan
The Irish Dance Fitness Plan by Ruth Magee
Dancing at the Crossroads by Sheila Ryan 

Books
The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan
Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty by Frank Hall
The Terminology of Irish Dance by Orfhlaith Ni Bhriain
Irish Dance From the Boreen to Broadway, edited by Mick Moloney, J’aime Morrison, and Colin Quigley

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